Speaking Up as Second Nature




When disasters occur like the recent Boeing crashes, or sexual abuse scandals like the one with Larry Nassar, the USA gymnastics team doctor, it's a system problem. Yes there are individual actors that need to be held to account. And there was a system that was creating a culture that ''protected'' the mal-behavior so that it continued over years, impacting and destroying many lives.


The nature of the system encourages certain behavior and discourages others. How can we shift the cultures of our workplaces so that it's second nature to speak up early and often?


Amy C. Edmundson is the Novartis Professor of Leadership and Management at the Harvard Business School. She is the author of The Fearless Organization: Creating Psychological Safety in the Workplace for Learning, Innovation, and Growth.


Yesterday in the Harvard Business review, she wrote:


There are various ways to get the culture change job done, but the common ingredient is institutionalizing the behavior of speaking up..... Some successful practices:
*Explicitly setting times, places, and structures for team members to speak their minds. *Making these happen frequently, so the “ouch” is diluted and people become accustomed to lively back-and-forth. *Setting rules of engagement, with broad input, and writing them down as a set of norms that becomes part of everyone’s lexicon.

Here's what I'll add to the discussion:


1. Look deeper into the nature of how things could go terribly wrong ahead of time. I've written recently about TRIZ. It's a Liberating Structure whereby teams ask what there top objective is. And then ask How can we make sure we achieve the Worst Outcome toward this top objective. Make a list of all the ways. So in our examples - How can we make sure that our places malfunction? How can we make sure that sexual abuse happens? (If even entertaining this question makes your uncomfortable, see #3) We then ask Are we doing any of these things currently, in any way shape, or form. Then you pick one to stop doing. (And I like to add - Examine the beliefs that are creating this behavior)


When we examine the patterns that lead to disaster, we are building a more complex awareness of the ingredients that lead to eventual disaster. What we are doing is priming our ability to notice (and then intervene early).


2. Psychological Safety happens when we have had a visceral experience of vulnerability followed by receiving support. This is where applied improv exercises are SO potent. When I lead a workshop, we start with a very simple Clap Circle game. The main vulnerability experienced, is that I just invited participants to stand up and push their chairs back. (Woah, what about the safety of our chairs and conference table!?). So then when I show them how we are going to pass a clap around the circle, while connecting with each other, and when they feel efficacy at this, there is a feeling of support. And we proceed with this game and others that slowly strengthen the relational architecture of the group.


The essence of improv is ''putting yourself out there'' and supporting your partner. This must happen on small levels before it can happen at larger ones.


Speaking up is ''putting ourselves out there'' in a vulnerable space. Without a visceral experience of doing that effectively how will we have that muscle memory when it's needed most?


And it's on Leadership to set the tone.


3. Become comfortable with being uncomfortable. This is another gift of applied improv. Every day we walk into it not knowing how it will unfold. Some people are unaware of this dynamic, or more likely are avoiding the evidence that every day turns out different than they had planned. When we encounter something unplanned we can seek to control it (or others), we can pretend it's not happening, or we can become paralyzed. (Really this is fight, flight,freeze). OR if we have worked our muscles of agility and being supple ahead of time, we can be responsive in the moment.


What it gets down to, I believe, is saying Yes to being fully present in that moment. I don't want to fight. I don't need to run away. And I don't have to be paralyzed. How can we stay grounded and listen and respond with agility?


The example of Germaine Kornegay comes to mind. She was going door to door running for city council and a man told her, "I will never vote for you, because your black." She decided to stay in the moment and have the bravery to listen. Here's the NPR story. (It's worth a listen to hear her tell it. I was inspired.)



To be sure, psychological safety does not happen overnight. It's the result of intentional choices by leadership to see the value in investing time and energy and money into creating this culture where speaking up is expected and encouraged.



Notes:

The New York Times' Daily podcast - The Whistleblowers at Boeing - April 23, 2019


#appliedimprovisation #liberatingstructures #Psychologicalsafety #whatwehavehereisafailuretocommunicate #yesresilience

©2019 by David Westerlund. Photo credits: Ramona Laird, Alvin Shim, and David Westerlund.